It gives me great pleasure to thank everyone who was involved in helping my son, Val White Jr., a senior at Susquehanna Community School District, earn his Eagle Scout Project (Boy Scout Troop 81). He instructed the helpers on building a campsite on the D & H Rail Trail in Ararat. A huge thank you to New Milford Hardware for donating the materials.
Pictured (l-r) are: front row - Donald Chandler, Matthew Matis, Mason Opalka, Jeremiah Haden; back row - Gannon Dooner, Cody Orner, Val White Jr.
Pictured (l-r) are: Dalton Crowley, Walter White, Gannon Dooner, Val White Jr., Val White Sr., Cody Orner, Liz White, Mike Gebhard (Scout Master). Not pictured was Ray Haden.
Helpers included: Cody Orner, Gannon Cannon, Donald Chandler, Mina Chandler, Mathew Matis, Elizabeth and Mike Matis, Jeremiah Haden, Ray Haden, Mason Opalka, Tom Opalka, Troop 81 Scout Master Mike Gebhard, Dalton Crowley, Walter White, Liz White, Lisa White and Val White Sr.
At the request of some members, the Blue Ridge School Board arranged a special meeting on October 14th to discuss where to go from here. More than 140 people signed in to the session via Zoom. With four COVID-19 cases confirmed positive, the schools are in "remote-only" mode for a week. And that isn't all.
The meeting opened with a statement by Board member Edward Arnold, who once again changed his mind based on the latest information. The last time, having heard from some medical professionals, Mr. Arnold supported shifting to a 4-day in-person schedule. He said that his colleague, Chris Lewis, had "cherry picked" quotes from a collection of studies, but that now he had become convinced that his earlier vote was mistaken. "I was wrong in voting the way I did, and I apologize," he said, asking for a vote to rescind the earlier motion.
Superintendent Matthew Button had run this by the district's solicitor and was told that such a special meeting could not entertain formal motions. He recommended that the board consider a collection of options for the next official meeting.
Mr. Button told the board that, in addition to the 4 positive cases, 11 instructional staff and more than 50 students are in quarantine for having been in contact with people who had tested positive. In fact, he had closed the schools the previous Friday not solely because of the positive cases, but because of a staff shortage, with no substitutes available. He said that Kelly Services, the company that supplies substitutes, had no one available. Board members suggested offering more money for substitutes, but that couldn't be done until the next formal meeting, and Blue Ridge is already paying among the highest area rates for substitutes.
So now, with 4 positive cases, the schools are closed for in-person instruction for a week, and sports are suspended. One more case would lead to a 2-week suspension. And the county is edging closer to the red zone, which would bring on even more restrictions.
The board heard from some members of the community over the Zoom session, most of them ambivalent about what to do: remote learning doesn't work very well, but we want to keep our kids and their families safe. There was some question about the way larger classes are split, with part interacting directly with a teacher, the other in another room watching on a computer. Mr. Button said that the classes are not split randomly, but are shifted so that all students have some face time with a teacher.
And that was one of the many issues brought up in a letter to the board from the teachers' union, the Blue Ridge Education Association (BREA), read out in full by Board Vice President Mindy Carr. (Board President Jessica Wright, a teacher in a school in New York State, was herself in quarantine and participating remotely.) The teachers are not comfortable with a return to 4-day in-person instruction, calling it "unwise." A BREA survey of the staff found 62 opposing the shift and 4 in favor. The letter described the way teachers must deal with the confusion in which their own worries inhibit a focus on classwork. The letter said that teachers covering for absent colleagues is risky and adds to the work load; with a full load of students in the buildings, the teachers would be responsible for more cleaning, for more hall monitoring, and more of all the other rules that take away from classroom instruction. They called the move "risky." "Our health is at the mercy of our students' families' choices," said the letter, noting that they can only control what happens in the schools, not the situations students are in at home. Some board members remarked that none of the cases found so far arose in the schools themselves; the cases were brought in from the outside.
So what to do now? No decision was taken at this meeting, of course, and none of the options available are ideal; all conceded that there is no perfect solution. Mr. Lewis said that "virtual learning does not work for kids." Ms. Wright countered that, as a teacher, she finds that, while not ideal, "virtual learning does work," and that the process gets better with practice and experience; she is actually continuing to teach her classes remotely from home while in quarantine. Mr. Lewis responded by saying that "this isn't working for working families;" and, for "our kids, education is essential."
Asked for his own recommendation, as the senior representative of the district's administration, Mr. Button once again tried to focus on "predictability," for the staff as well as for families – "something we can stick with."
Board member Joseph Andusko asked about the possibility of giving parents a choice of what "model" they want to follow for their own children. While this could complicate the situation even further – there are already so many variables in the equation – it was something the meeting was willing to consider.
And consider it they will. The next scheduled meeting of the Blue Ridge School Board was supposed to be on October 26. They agreed to move it up to October 19, the very next Monday (and probably before you read this), at which time they will wrangle with it again, trying to come up with something that they can be comfortable with.
Susquehanna opened their October 14th meeting with public comment from Ms. Laura Nichols, the local librarian, who presented a proposal to place a storywalk within the Ira-Reynolds park. Council unanimously approved the request with gratefulness to Ms. Nichols. The storywalk will feature the book "Daniel Finds a Poem" through numerous weatherized page holders along the short walking loop at the park.
Continuing the meeting, council each took a turn voicing their opinion on Halloween for 2020. Each councilman present came to the same conclusion: individuals can decide for themselves if they want to participate. With that being said the council authorized Halloween on October 31st from 6 - 8pm and requested everyone who participates to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Those who do not wish to participate were asked to leave their light off during trick-or-treating.
Proceeding from Halloween, the council provided an update regarding the Ira-Reynolds monument being completed by Gannon Dooner, a local boyscout. Additional bluestone squares were delivered to complete the circular pad that surrounds the engraved monument. These stones are available for inscription in exchange for a $50.00 donation. If you would like more information on the bluestone inscriptions please contact the Susquehanna Borough office for more details.
Following the park update was a department of public works report which included the request to share that leaf pick up has started and will continue until November 19th. The DPW department asked residents to bring leaves to the curb and to refrain from adding garden debris such as sticks and various materials in with the leaves. Wrapping up the meeting, the council wished to thank the SCDA Garden Club and Master Gardeners for their efforts this year on Main Street. Appreciation was noted from many people in the room on how lovely the town looked this year and how beautiful the flowers were.
With a case of COVID-19 reported, apparently in its soccer program, Mountain View Superintendent Michael Elia suspended all sports last week pending further investigation. Against some opposition on the school board, sports programs were allowed to resume on October 13th.
The board's meeting on October 12th was relatively brief, covering a number of routine items, but the suspension of sports was in the air of the conference room where the board has resumed its in-person meetings. More than 30 people also signed in remotely to the Google Meet session.
The district has also resumed loans to the cafeteria fund, this time $35,000, although it was not identified as a "loan," but now as a simple transfer from the general fund.
The board gave final approval to an update for its policy governing the use of electronic communications for its own meetings. The change requires that a board member participating in an executive session must ensure that s/he is isolated to ensure the privacy of the communication.
To help families get connected to the school's virtual learning platforms, the board signed an agreement with AT&T to provide cellular "hotspots" to households with inadequate internet access. This measure was similar to one agreed to last time with Verizon.
The board accepted the sole bid for wood chips (for heating) to Deer Park Lumber of Tunkhannock. The price will be $46 per ton, $4 per ton higher than under the current contract. Maintenance Supervisor Robert Taylor said that there were "no glitches" with Deer Park last year; he said they provide "good premium chips."
The board added a custodian to Mr. Taylor's staff, which he said fills his staff for both buildings. He is, however, still looking for substitute custodians.
The board approved a couple of conferences, both of them "virtual," for a total registration cost of $560. Some such conferences in a normal year could also have involved travel and lodging expenses.
When Board Vice President Michael Barhite – standing in for Jason Richmond, who participated "virtually" – called on his colleagues for any other business, Board member Dave Schulte offed a motion to "discontinue all fall sports." There wasn't any debate to speak of; Mr. Schulte has consistently opposed athletics programs during the pandemic. Mr. Barhite called for a roll-call vote. With the vote 6-3 against the motion, the sports programs will continue. Sondra Stine and Christine Plonski-Sezer voted with Mr. Schulte.
At the end of the meeting, when Mr. Barhite called on visitors for comments, a cross-country coach pleaded for the board to allow the resumption of his schedule, which he said was for a low-risk sport for his teams with good prospects this year. A parent of one runner seconded his plea, upset that "half of the season [had been] taken from them."
Mr. Barhite then called on Dr. Elia to explain his decision-making since the previous Friday. Dr. Elia said that day "information was coming at us fast and furious." With a confirmed case of the virus involved, he thought he needed to make a firm decision, "just to buy us some time" to understand the situation. "We will take it day by day," he said, considering "so many moving parts," not just at Mountain View, but at other districts with which the Eagles compete.
The board is also taking it "day by day," of course. The next public meeting is scheduled for Monday, October 26, 2020, beginning at 7:00pm (or sometime thereafter). But you never know. Check the district's website for the latest information.
Northeastern Pennsylvania prepares for winter in October, its small towns hunkering down as the darkness grows longer and quiet descends over the landscape. Well, it's not quite that romantic for town councils like the one in New Milford Borough, but winter was in the air nonetheless at the meeting on October 15th.
The collegial collection of citizens discussed a Christmas tree, putting the cannons away, and outfitting a skidsteer for the winter (at a cost of $625, shared with the Municipal Authority), all in anticipation of the season to come that no one was eager to welcome.
The meeting opened, however, with another plea from Nathan Place for cooperation on his plans for the old school building on Church Street. He has been trying to develop the building into a business center, but has been stymied by zoning issues. He is suing the borough to try to free up the property, a process that inhibits any discussion in an open meeting. Council President Teri Gulick steadfastly refused to discuss the matter with him, recommending that he put his arguments in writing to the borough, which would then be passed along to the town's solicitor. Undaunted, he said that his largest tenant, the Learning Center, could elect to move out when its lease expires next summer, and without some resolution he couldn't say what might happen to the building. Ms. Gulick wasn't moved; as long as the litigation continues, he needs to put his thoughts in writing for consideration by the borough's attorney.
The major item on the agenda was the project to rebuild the town's sidewalks, in particular, along Main Street. The borough can't afford to do them all at once, and even a third will be costly, at an estimated $190,500 for the section from the Dollar General to Johnson Street on the north end of town. A PennDOT grant will cover 70% of the cost, but the borough will have to come up with $67,500 for its share. So moved and accepted.
Council's Finance Committee will have to find a way to wedge that into the budget for next year. Ms. Gulick, Don Sutton and Kerin Welch will continue work on the budget in advance of the November Council meeting when it needs to be referred to the public for review. It will be formally adopted in December, and a bit earlier than usual. Council decided to move the December up from the 17th to the 10th.
Most other pending business remains pending. Council did agree to donate $100 to Interfaith, but otherwise the meeting was uneventful. And once again Ms. Gulick urged her colleagues to study the version of the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) prepared by the town's solicitor. The IPMC would give the borough more leverage to encourage owners to keep their properties in shape. "We really need this," said she.
The New Milford Borough Council meets on the third Thursday of each month (except this December) beginning at 6:30pm in the Borough Building on Main Street. They're nice people.